I've learned that I'm pretty darn good at going through the motions up there in the saddle. When you've been riding for many years, you have a fair amount of muscle-memory going for you (or against you). When I feel something happening in my horse, or when I want something to happen, my body knows what to do and what aids to apply, usually without much mental effort. But am I getting the result I'm asking for when I apply an aid? Ummm, no, not always.
And so, my smartypants pony has figured me out! He knows that if he ignores me I'll usually give up and go on to the next thing. He can blow past a half-halt, he can quicken his tempo when he loses his balance, he can fake the bend, he can lock up his back in transitions...sometimes I correct the situation and sometimes I say, "Darn, oh well, moving on..." This half-baked way of riding only serves to teach my pony that he is in charge, which results in a big argument once in a while when I start to sense the ride is getting away from me.
At that point, it's really unfair to suddenly get after him for taking over. He's like, "Hey, I questioned you five times and you said I was boss five times so why are you so upset about it now??" It all comes down to being effective with my aids. When I ask for something, it can't just be a mindless muscle-memory reaction, it needs to be intentional; a question that I expect an answer to. If he misunderstands the question, it's my fault, I ask again more clearly, but if he understands and chooses to ignore me then I need to correct immediately. Stop, start over, don't move on until the question is answered.
I've been challenging myself to ride this way lately and guess what? Instead of feeling like a bossypants who doesn't deserve to be piloting such a talented and smart pony (which is what the bad voices in my head sometimes tell me, and then I doubt myself and let the pony take over), Clay was relieved that I was being more clear and intentional with my aids. He knew and understood exactly what I expected from him, and he tried his heart out to deliver the right answers. It really started to feel like a conversation and a partnership then. I think deep down I had the idea that I would break my pony's wonderful work ethic and bold spirit if I didn't allow him to have a say in everything, but the opposite is happening: His confidence is soaring because now he is understanding the questions and getting the answers right!
Moral of the story: Trust yourself, be fair but follow through and expect results. Your horse wants and prefers clear directions from a confident partner.